ATLANTA — John Beilein is the inspiration for every coach at the lower levels of college basketball, the living proof that this game isn’t just about who you know but how well you can coach.
If he can make the journey from Erie Community College, to tiny Nazareth College, to Division 2 Le Moyne for nine long years, then up the Division 1 ladder at Canisius and Richmond and West Virginia to, finally, lead Michigan to the national title game, why can’t anyone?
It is a nice story line.
It is also mostly a lie.
The coaches at the lower level of the sport know it. Even Beilein admitted it Sunday. He is the lottery winner and they are all buying tickets, hoping that along the way they’ll get that one lucky break or that one athletic director willing to roll the dice on someone without a pedigree.
“My wife and I talked about this the other day because my son Patrick is a Division 2 coach (at West Virginia Wesleyan University), whether people would ever trust a Division 2 coach to go to Division 1,” Beilein said. “They should, but they probably don’t.
“I believe that if you can coach, you can coach,” he said. “But there’s a perception that you got to have a pedigree. You have to come up a certain tree in order to know how to coach.”
That he is coaching against a man with his own growing tree, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, is proof of that. It took 29 years in college coaching for Beilein to get a job in the Big Ten. It took Richard Pitino, the son of the soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach, 30 years on the planet.
The younger Pitino, who was introduced at Minnesota on Friday, had coached at Florida International for exactly one year. The experience matters less than the name and the ability to attract players.
Or, as Rowan coach Joe Cassidy put it: “I just don’t think the Division 2 or Division 3 guys are getting the opportunity as much because you can’t win the press conference with these guys.”
Rutgers will have a press conference eventually to replace Mike Rice, and since AD Tim Pernetti has followed him out the door, it is anybody’s guess which direction the school will look for a new coach.
Cassidy holds out little hope that Rutgers will look outside the box, however, because so few schools do, even if the ones who do get their shot are more prepared thanks to the experience running their own program.
Beilein is proof of that, but even he needed a break. He already had been turned down for the Canisius job once while at Le Moyne and admitted that he had begun to wonder if his career would end at that level.
But then the Canisius job re-opened and he caught a break: A prominent Division 1 head coach in the area called to recommend him, and on his second try, he was hired. That prominent coach? Jim Boeheim, the longtime Syracuse coach, who Beilein defeated in the Final Four.
That call is as important as anything a coach accomplishes on the court. It is unlikely that Kevin Willard, for example, gets the head job at Seton Hall without a phone call from Pitino.
Relationships matter. Tim Lawrence is starting out on that journey now, a Verona native who was fortunate enough to be a graduate assistant on Shaka Smart’s staff at VCU during its Final Four run in 2011. He is now an assistant coach at his alma mater, Randolph-Macon, with the same dream that Beilein had.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get there,” he said, “but I want to be a Division 1 head coach someday.”
It is cynical, but true: He might be better off to quit his job, take $10,000 out of his bank account and form an AAU team that can deliver a couple of top players to a big college program. This is the path Josh Pastner took, and now he is making $2 million a year at Memphis.
As he climbed the ladder, no one seemed to be concerned if he could coach — in truth, no one is sure to this day. That is the reality of the business now. A savant with Xs and Os is not nearly as valued as a recruiter, and if that recruiter comes in a leaf on a prominent coaching tree, even better.
“I hope I’m holding some type of flag right now for all those Division 2, Division 3, NAIA, junior college coaches, who really were some of the best coaches I ever coached against,” Beilein said, “knowing that they could be here too right now if they had the same breaks I had.”
Maybe, if Beilein wins the national title, that door will open just a crack more for guys like him. If nothing else, he has proven that the most successful coaches aren’t always the ones that win the press conference.
The coaching profession is all about timing and fit! Stay on your grind.